Hard target

October 12, 2004

THE LATEST DEADLINE has come and gone, and there still aren't enough social service workers to meet the needs of Maryland's endangered children.

The Department of Human Resources, state legislators, advocates and families agree that reducing caseloads by increasing the number of child welfare workers is the right thing to do. The differences appear to be in the details: The legislature, advocates and parents want it sooner, the department and the governor seem content to take their time -- even if it means begging the General Assembly to cancel a fine for their delinquency.

The $1.5 million fine (actually an automatic withholding of budget money in the spring) was established because the agency was backsliding on adding the caseworker and supervisor positions to meet levels set in a 1996 law. Eight years is a long time not to meet a goal, especially when the result could be children continuing to be abused at home because no one can get to their cases right now.

It may be counterintuitive to threaten a cash-starved agency with a loss of money, but that is the only stick the General Assembly has to show it thinks DHR should follow the law.

The agency, which suffers serious caseworker poaching from better-paying neighboring states and local nonprofits, needs all the help it can get. It also needs to get the word out to its departments and to prospective workers that the department is hiring.

In a Sept. 17 letter to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe outlined a plan to aggressively recruit caseworkers, including low-cost marketing such as attending more job fairs and advertising on Web sites, but much of the plan has yet to begin. As the deadline was Oct. 1, it was no surprise that the department didn't reach the caseworker goal. What was it waiting for?

Right now, the fine is a paper loss. By March, it escalates to more than $3 million, but all is forgiven if the numbers can add up then. DHR can reach the goal with its stronger recruitment and a little attention to stem the steady turnover (103 new hires since January, but 96 other workers left, the department says).

These workers are urgently needed, both to improve standard care and to head off another horrifying tale of abuse ending in death, such as that of the infant twins beaten to death in Baltimore in May. It is not clear that the department recognizes the need for speed.

Let the penalty stand.

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